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Disrupting the cow

A new model of food production will massively disrupt traditional livestock and dairy industries.

Credit: Mitch Blunt for The Boston Globe
Credit: Mitch Blunt for The Boston GlobeMitch blunt for the Boston Globe

When Kentucky Fried Chicken launched Beyond Fried Chicken in Atlanta, it had an experience similar to that of Apple stores when introducing a new smartphone. Cars double looped the restaurant and stretched down the highway. And KFC isn’t alone. Customer traffic at local Burger Kings offering the Impossible Whopper has spiked with the Impossible Burger, now the most popular late-night delivery food in America.

This enthusiastic response to what we call modern foods — where animal proteins are replaced by those programmed and customized by humans — is just the beginning. In fact, we are on the cusp of the deepest, most consequential disruption of food and agriculture in 10,000 years.


In our new report, “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030,” we analyze how the many different products derived from the cow — from burgers and milk to leather and collagen — will be completely disrupted by new technologies and business models.

By 2030, we estimate the number of cows in the United States will have fallen by 50 percent, and the beef and dairy industries will be all but bankrupt as animal-derived foods are replaced by modern equivalents that are superior and cost less than half as much to produce. All other livestock industries will suffer a similar fate.

This is primarily a protein disruption driven by economics. Extraordinary advances in precision biology mean we can now program micro-organisms to produce almost any protein using a process we call precision fermentation, or PF. In fact, 90 percent of the cheese made in America today is made with PF proteins. This is not genetic modification of foods — proteins have no genetic material.

Due to rapid improvements in underlying biological and information technologies, the cost of PF is falling exponentially — from $1 million per kilogram in 2000 to about $100 today. With the technologies we have today, we project these costs will fall even lower — to $10 per kilogram by 2023-25. This means PF proteins will be five times cheaper to produce than animal proteins by 2030 and 10 times less expensive by 2035.


These advances are now being combined with an entirely new model of production we call Food-as-Software. Imagine this: Scientists will design proteins that food developers can download anywhere in the world to produce food locally. In the process, we can bypass animals completely and build our food at the molecular level to our precise specifications. Fermentation farms will become the new food farms.

This innovative business model ensures fast iteration of ever-improving products. Modern foods will not only be less expensive than animal-derived products, but more nutritious, better tasting, and more convenient — with an almost unimaginable variety. Precision biology will allow us to create hundreds of trillions of unique proteins — the only limitation will be the molecular chef’s imagination.

The modern food system will use 10-25 times less feedstock and 10 times less water while producing less than a tenth of the waste and pollution. The current industrial food production system has as much chance of competing with it as a pay phone does with an iPhone.

The key to understanding the speed and scale of modern food disruption is the fact that only a small percentage of ingredients need to be replaced for an entire product to be disrupted. For example, PF proteins need to replace only a tiny portion of a jug of milk, just 3.3 percent, to bring about the collapse of the whole dairy industry. These PF proteins — casein and whey — are already being produced in Silicon Valley. Sharp cheddar and chocolate milk, yogurt and butter will be replaced by modern alternatives, triggering a death spiral of increasing prices and decreasing demand for the industrial livestock industry.


The benefits of modern food disruption are profound. Cost savings alone will see the average US family save more than $1,200 a year, keeping an additional $100 billion a year in Americans’ pockets by 2030, while a decentralized, local production system will be more stable and resilient, meaning far greater food security. We also expect the new industry to generate nearly as many jobs (1 million) as it destroys (1.1 million).

Modern foods will be far healthier than industrial livestock products too. They could help reduce cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes, estimated to cost the United States $1.7 trillion each year.

Removing animals from food production will also see US greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture fall 65 percent by 2035, a significant contributor to climate change. And with modern foods using much less land, about 500 million acres will be freed for other uses — almost as much land as the Louisiana Purchase. This presents the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history. Consider if this land were used to maximize carbon sequestration — capturing and storing carbon dioxide — all current sources of US greenhouse gas emissions could be fully offset by 2035.


While this market disruption is inevitable, policy makers, investors, businesses, and voters can affect how quickly these products are made more widely available. Countries with more open and competitive markets will surge ahead, while those without risk monopolies controlling the modern food system’s massive benefits.

That’s why we hope to jump-start the conversation. In the next 10 years, we can move from a centralized system dependent on scarce, extractive resources to a localized, resilient system based on abundant, creative production. If the United States resists this change, it risks locking in an expensive and obsolete market, while other countries capture the benefits of this nascent, trillion-dollar industry. Modern foods offer extraordinary opportunities for all of humanity, but much of the wealth, jobs, and geopolitical advantage will accrue to those who lead the way. Do we want to lead or lose another 21st-century industry? The choice is ours.

Tony Seba is cofounder of RethinkX. He and Catherine Tubb coauthored, “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030 — The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming.”